Critical Dialogues: Heather Desaulniers and Christy Funsch

By Heather Desaulniers

November 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

What if, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with a choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? That’s the experiment behind Critical Dialogues. For this third installment, Christy Funsch, Artistic Director of Funsch Dance Experience, met for coffee with critic Heather Desaulniers to talk about the September 12, 2014 performance of Funsch’s This is the Girl, which premiered at Dance Mission Theater.

Heather Desaulniers: I saw This is the Girl on opening night, and I was really impressed.
Christy Funsch: Thank you.
HD: I thought it was well crafted, I thought the narrative was thought provoking and I also thought the structure was super smart.
CF: Have you seen my work before?
HD: I’ve definitely seen you performing in other things but I don’t know that I’ve seen your choreography. So I was coming in with no preconceptions. And speaking of coming in, when we entered the theater, I was really struck by how you decided to arrange the space. CF: Do you mean stripping it down?
HD: Yeah, I’d never seen Dance Mission Theater quite like that before. Lots of choreographers take out the wings but it was that back wall—the windows visible with the curtains drawn. I didn’t even know there were windows back there. We got a chance to look onto Mission, or whatever street it is.
CF: 24th.
HD: I felt like that choice set up an openness, exposure, vulnerability thing.
CF: Absolutely. I feel like the ride, and my intention of the ride, was to disarm and also to land us really where we were rather than “oh, we’re in imaginary theater-land.” No, we’re actually in Dance Mission, right above the 24th Street BART station. We’re going to hear what’s going on out there and be a part of it in the same way that [musical collaborators] Grrrl Brigade make their home there; in the same way that Nol [Simonse, performer in This is the Girl] and I have history there, and in the same way we have history with Harry Rubeck, who did the lighting.
HD: As the piece opened, you had the electric guitarist [Dory Ellis] set upstage right, and then five dancers [Nick Brentley, Chad Dawson, Chinchin Hsu, Peiling Kao, Courtney Moreno] all entered the space. For me, right from the beginning there was a narrative of the individual’s experience within the group.
CF: Well…I just love that you used the phrase, “for me.” That’s what Hope Mohr calls an admission of subjectivity, and it is missing from a lot of discourse around seeing theater, talking about dance and talking about performance. Sure, yeah, that’s one of, what I hope were, multiple readings of that particular opening.
HD: That section was pretty diverse choreographically. There were complicated lifts or balances that showed a supportive group dynamic but then, there were also specific gestures where I thought group criticism and judging was going on.
CF: I would hope it was charged. I feel like making Chad Dawson the central figure in that section was, for me, a way of disarming expectations around ‘a girl’ being a central figure. I was interested in dissolving that expectation—like planting a seed and then digging it up.
HD: Because I sensed that narrative at the beginning, I was also looking for it elsewhere or was noticing it elsewhere, or maybe it was a little bit of both.
CF: Did the conversation that Nol and I had dislodge any of that searching you were doing?
HD: When you both came out and sat on those mini plastic chairs and were just talking, it was really genuine and authentic. It seemed like a true ‘in the moment’ conversation, and one I wanted to listen to. I was really interested in a) the content of what you were saying and b) how it was coming across.
CF: Sure.
HD: But I was confused about how it fit into the larger context of the piece. On Friday night, Nol was talking a lot about making a story with dance, creating a storyline in his mind, and you were responding, “well, that’s for you, but that’s not for everybody.” I’m sure that conversation was different every night.
CF: Yes, very different. It was set up that we had about five different potential topics, and I knew what I was going to introduce but Nol didn’t know from night to night. Story was one of them. And there were a few reasons for it finding its way into the performance. One was, again this idea of disarming and inviting in, shedding performative armor and being vulnerable. Neither one of us like to talk on stage, and so…
HD: Well, you looked super comfortable.
CF: I’m surprised to hear that. We were terrified. But as we perform together we continue to find the new level of risk. So this was a risk for us, for this piece. Trying to sit vulnerably and not be prepared was certainly part of it, in the hopes that it would encourage receptivity. Also, introducing the idea of ‘let’s talk about narrative’ and ‘are you the kind of viewer, or dancer or dance maker who values that.’ Nol really does and we butt heads on it a lot because I don’t, at all. I’m really not interested in narrative.
HD: It just doesn’t speak to you?
CF: I work a lot with fragmentation. I like to be in moments that accumulate and I like to find my own paths of connectivity among them. The parts that don’t necessarily fit tidily, for me, more accurately equate with how I go around in the world. As a viewer, I feel like there’s a certain amount of denial in work that creates really smoothly packaged experiences. I just prefer to sit with more messiness and things being unresolved. That gives me more of an opportunity to find myself in the work. So these are the reasons for that particular conversation. It was my hope that it would plant the seed where you could notice whether you’re looking for story but also that having a story was not my intention.
HD: So the conversation that you and Nol had was different every night. Was there any other performance material that was up in the air?
CF: Yes, there are a few moments that were uncertain or unscripted. Very few. There is a little improvisation in the work but it’s really tightly…
HD: Structured?
CF: Held down. My own performance in the last section changed a little bit. I had a score (some material I was working with) and I felt like I got some more grounding with it on Sunday [the closing performance]. Also having people view the piece had a pretty big impact. The five dancers and myself worked alone for two months. I usually bring people in for showings and just didn’t have time to do it.
HD: Like an open rehearsal?
CF: Yes, and so having an audience really took them somewhere by Sunday. They felt more grounded, more connected to each other, more a sense of the room and being able to sit in the task of each section a little bit more comfortably. I think the dancers did an incredible job.
HD: Yes, they were great.
CF: I really felt good about their empowerment in it.
HD: I really enjoyed the structure of the piece; it was almost what I would describe as a dance concerto.
CF: Ok.
HD: Musical terms about form and structure can have a loaded meaning…
CF: And also authority that I feel pulls away from movement’s self-autonomy. Making parallels to musical forms is difficult for me because I feel it undermines our ability to come up with our own structures.
HD: Well, I think the reason why I use that term is because there was all these different solos or featured moments along with interspersed group scenes. But I’m interested in what you said. I’ve never really thought about it like that…
CF: I think it’s something to look at. I think it’s something to pull apart. I feel like it opens a tremendous amount of possibility when we try and look at structure and try and imagine we’re the architects of this experiential time-based thing.
HD: At the same time though, music was a huge collaborator in this piece. You had a lot of different music going on: the electric guitarist, the Grrrl Brigade Taiko drummers and then a youth chorus towards the end.
CF: [laughing] Absolutely. But it was very difficult and really confining. It was a big constraint for me.
HD: Having all the different aspects of the music? Or music in general?
CF: Both.
HD: How did the music for This is the Girl come about?
CF: It came about in my early writing about what the piece was going to be and an interest in having a container that was charged, psycho-emotionally. The children, the teenagers and certainly the way the guitar was used–all led to this more emotionally driven place.
HD: What do you mean, how the guitar was used?
CF: That it wasn’t a tonal guitar. That it was more pop-based and grounded in music that some people might recognize as by being by PJ Harvey.
HD: The musical collaborators were at different phases of life and I also saw that throughout the piece. In one section, the five dancers were all sitting on the miniature chairs. First they were facing us and then they turned to be on the diagonal. They were doing a lot of gestural stuff with their hands and arms, and it looked to me like they were at school—an early phase of life.
CF: I think it’s interesting that you used the word ‘school’ because for me, that section is two things. It’s the only time there is unison movement in the whole piece and I feel like unison movement is asking people to behave, and…
HD: That’s definitely a school thing.
CF: Yes, so there’s a play on that. And I have a lot of resistance to unison as a performer—always wanting to disobey that restriction but at the same time, realizing the power of it.
HD: And then another life-phase, the duet where you and Nol were elderly. When you sat and held hands for a really long time, it was powerful.
CF: Yes, and again that is part of the container. Time is an element in the performance. I’m interested in the time that Nol and I have had together in our performing relationship and how that’s changed. It’s also part of the ideas around empowerment and girlhood. Is there an age when we are confident? And then do we lose that? Are we always in it and out of our self-confidence; are we always in and out of our ability to feel assured of who we are?
HD: I had another thought on the choreography. The larger movement section in the middle…
CF: With the drums and guitar playing too?
HD: Yes, it made me think of models on a runway. Each dancer had an individual pathway that they traveled forward and back, kind of like models do. It was also a more dance-y and technical part of the piece.
CF: It’s such a funny section. There are three figures who moonwalk and there’s references to pop movement and then you’ve got drums and guitar. When I watched it, it went to this manic, stadium feel and then to take that apart was fun.
HD: And it did dismantle quite quickly, and became something different.
CF: Yeah, I hope there’s lightness and humor there and…
HD: There was.
CF: It kind of grew on me. We were working with this piece of music by George McCrae—a 1970s soulful, groovy song—and doing movement to it that was sort of cheesy phrase material. It’s me trying to cope with phrase material and poking fun at myself.
HD: I loved how it didn’t feel like you were making this big social commentary statement. It was light—I saw the scene and then suddenly it was something else.
CF: I think it is really huge that you can say, “I saw that and then I saw it go away.” For me, that is so important—detachment, letting go and dissolving what we’re hooked into. That is a huge intention of mine. It’s really very meaningful for me when I hear from viewers that they’re able to do that and they don’t feel betrayed. Because it asks for some patience.
HD: What would you have wanted your dream review to have said?
CF: I hope that I’m offering multiple readings of the piece. I hope that people can look at it, feel validated in what they see, trust that and yet not be fixated on it. So again this idea of letting things erase, letting things pass by. An acknowledgement of subjectivity is really important to me in a review. When possible, I also appreciate prior works being referenced…like “so and so’s moved away from formalism into something else.” Also an ability and/or interest to consider how things are functioning within the work instead of what they mean. So, here’s this conversation dropped into this piece. What is its function? Here’s this gestural thing on chairs. How is it addressing what we were just in or how is it leading up to where we’re going or how is it isolation?
HD: Those are good thoughts about a dream review. Actually, I think it’s a hard question to consider.
CF: It is, but it’s good for us to think about, and to take some responsibility about how we want our work written about. I also appreciate a question about intention: “this is landing on me this way and I’m not sure it’s your intention.” Well then I get the chance to ask myself, what am I intending?
HD: Then, this is the perfect time for a question I had about intention in the piece. There was one spot where I kind of tuned out—the duet that Nol and Chad danced. It was set pretty far downstage right and they were on the floor for a lot of it. I couldn’t see much from where I was sitting in the audience.
CF: It’s good to hear, we tried to push it so people could see, but obviously not everyone could.
HD: Maybe there’s nothing more to it than I just didn’t see it.
CF: No, I think there is more to it.
HD: There was no music. And the movement I could see was pretty quiet and meditative for the most part…
CF: I really like the opportunity to consider this because I have mixed feelings about it. I feel like something shifts with time there that I’m really interested in. We’re in silence for seven minutes and the bottom kind of drops out. There’s very little action, especially after the duet proper when they just sit. I was really curious about morphing people into sculptural shapes and letting us be in the space together in silence. So that was a big part of my reasoning for that section. I feel like there’s also something with Nol and Chad that speaks to experience, age, opportunities to be tender and opportunities to be frustrated. I wonder if there’s a desire to put these two lovely men together for a reason that may not necessarily nest conceptually within the piece. I have questions about it. Here’s the tender duet; we can all go to fantasy-land and sleep well tonight. I don’t buy into that completely and yet, I’m still giving the experience. I wrestle with it.
HD: Thank you so much; this was great…
CF: I feel like this is a really healthy supportive model for an exchange between dancemakers and writers. Even just using this word ‘writer’ as opposed to critic, it changes the entire tenor of the relationship. We are all advocates, hopefully.

Christy Funsch is a dance maker, performer and teacher who has been based in SF for 18 years. Included in dance magazine’s “25 to Watch” list for 2014, she has just returned from a month-long residency at the Yaddo Foundation. Visit for upcoming projects.

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.